SF Chronicle: Hecklers at Richmond council meetings are a disgrace

blogimage.jpgRichmond City Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles felt the dread sweep over her earlier this month as she prepared to submit a proclamation honoring Gay Pride month.

"I knew it was going to be awful," she said. "It always is."

For the last four years, Beckles has been the target of antigay hecklers who have used obscene and vulgar comments about her sexual orientation to express their displeasure.

But it seems that Beckles, her City Council colleagues and Richmond officials have had their fill of council disruptions, gay slurs and other unacceptable behavior.

On July 1, the council is expected to vote on a proposal from Beckles to adopt a six-month ban on anyone whose conduct, actions or vulgar utterances disrupt the council from conducting the business of a city of more than 100,000 residents.

The current policy is to remove them for the remainder of the meeting.

"It has not stopped, and I feel like I've been patient for the last four years," Beckles said. "We have policies but no consequences for people who repeatedly disrupt council sessions."

Things have become so unruly that last year when Beckles acknowledged the Ryse Center, a Contra Costa County youth center, for its work in providing a safe space for gay teens, hooligans in the crowd heckled the teens who came to accept the commendation.

Effectively barring a troublemaker from public meetings can be tricky business.

American citizens have the First Amendment right to freely give their opinions - especially when it comes to our elected officials. You can call them lazy, ugly, complain about their breath or apparel, but you cannot attack their sexual orientation, religion or race. That, too, is protected by our nation's laws.

In response to a citizen's e-mail complaining about the ongoing problems at council meetings, Richmond City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller weighed in.

"The Brown Act makes clear the public's right to criticize its elected leaders," he wrote. "Determining what constitutes 'disruption' of a meeting varies from case to case, but disruption virtually always requires conduct beyond critical comments. By the same token, there are limits beyond which speech and related conduct at the podium or in the audience need be tolerated so that the Council can conduct its meetings."

And the most egregious violators at Richmond's council meetings have breached that limit far too many times.

There is nothing unusual about city government meetings becoming heated, with supporters and opponents of an issue. It happens in cities all over the country.

What is unique about Richmond is that the most vociferous taunts are all-too-personal attacks on an individual council member, but not because of a stance on a particular civic issue.

"Attacking someone's sexual orientation doesn't fall within city government's jurisdiction," said Councilman Tom Butt. "We're peeling back the onion to see what we can legally do. I think our council majority is going to move on this."

I sure hope so, because allowing a handful of troublemakers to take control of public meetings has consequences beyond just inappropriately insulting elected officials.

This kind of behavior is the antithesis of free speech and expression - it's a toxic practice that thwarts the democratic process.

Because when Richmond residents believe their elected officials can't control their own meetings, it discourages public participation, the very essence of democratic rule. People stop listening and watching, and soon enough they might stop caring altogether.

But even more than that, we have a reputation to uphold.

This is the mighty Bay Area, a region of the country with a long tradition of tolerance and acceptance. It's also a place that has matured to the point that most of its residents don't blame others for their skin color, sexual orientation or the economic circumstances of their birth.

For those reasons and plain old common sense, the actions of a handful of Richmond residents is a public disgrace, and Richmond city officials should act swiftly and decisively and stop it dead in its tracks.

Online extra

Some of the disruptive behavior has been captured on video and posted on YouTube. To view it, go to:





Chip Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. His column runs on Tuesday and Friday. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @chjohnson

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